This article was written by Bob Buege
Every red-blooded American boy growing up during the Great Depression dreamed of playing in the World Series, preferably in Yankee Stadium. Philip Donald Haugstad came close twice, missing by one day in 1947 and by one pitch to Bobby Thomson in 1951.
Phil entered the world on February 23, 1924, in Black River Falls, Wisconsin. He was the second of four sons of Paul and Jennie Haugstad, who operated a modest dairy farm in rural Jackson County, in the west-central part of the state.
The Haugstads were church-going Lutherans. Jennie, whose maiden name was Peasley, was English on her father’s side, German on her mother’s. Paul’s parents had emigrated, separately, from Norway in 1882. Phil was five years old when the stock market crashed in October 1929. The crash hit small farmers extremely hard. The four sons—in descending order, Robert, Philip, Harold, and Arthur—pitched in with the farm chores. Their mother taught in one-room schoolhouses in the area. Phil’s father hired out as a carpenter and joined the Civilian Conservation Corps. Phil picked beans and cucumbers for the Humbird Canning Factory.
The Haugstad brothers attended Pleasant View School, a one-room frame structure with a big wood stove in the basement and two outdoor toilets in back. The brothers walked to school, three miles each way, often in sub-zero temperatures.
Phil attended Alma Center High School, where he was elected president of the Future Farmers of America and appeared in a couple of one-act plays. His main interest, however, was sports. He excelled in basketball and baseball, winning nearly every game he pitched and hurling three no-hitters.
In his prime, Phil carried 165 pounds on a wiry six-feet-three-inch frame, but brother Bob said, “My God, he could pick up one side of the back end of a pickup truck. He was mighty strong, all muscle.” Art said, “Some pitchers have a soft ball when it hits your mitt. Phil’s was like a bowling ball hitting your mitt, just drove you back. They compared him with Bob Feller at times.”
On May 12, 1942 Haugstad graduated from Alma Center High School. In early 1943, with war raging in Europe and in the Pacific, he drove to the recruiting office in Eau Claire and enlisted in the Army air corps.
Phil was assigned to the aircraft mechanics school at Keesler Army Airfield in Biloxi, Mississippi. The facility provided four weeks of basic training for new recruits and focused on special training in maintenance of the B-24 bomber. After basic Phil was sent to Peterson Field in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Although not fond of the regimentation of military life, Phil enjoyed skiing in the mountains of Colorado. He also found access to his other favorite sport. “The military had all these baseball teams,” brother Bob noted. “They had a couple of B-17s that would fly these guys to different tournaments, other service teams and what-not. A lot of them were big-league players or very famous people playing.”1
On Valentine’s Day 1946, Sergeant Phil Haugstad was honorably discharged at Camp McCoy, about twenty-five miles south of his home. He promptly signed a minor-league contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers organization. The scout who signed him was Ernie Rudolph, a native of Black River Falls.
A month after returning to civilian life, Haugstad was at the Dodgers spring training camp in Daytona Beach, Florida. He had begun camp with the St. Paul Saints, Brooklyn’s Class AAA team in the American Association, but later was assigned to the Class C Grand Forks (North Dakota) Chiefs of the Northern League.
During the 1946 season Phil was the workhorse of the Grand Forks pitching staff, leading his club in nearly every category. He won fifteen games for a sixth-place team and created a good-enough impression that in 1947 he made the big jump up to St. Paul.
By the end of June Haugstad had recorded nine victories with only one loss. He was selected to the league’s All-Star team, an honor somewhat diminished by the fact that no All-Star game was played. The scheduled three-day break was used instead to make up postponed games, and each All-Star was simply given a wristwatch.
In late August Phil was 15-6 when Brooklyn general manager Branch Rickey decided to add him to the Dodgers’ roster for the September pennant run. Rickey let him pitch one more game, on August 29. Phil hurled a complete game and beat the Kansas City Blues, but as a result he did not report to the Dodgers until September 1. He was one day too late for World Series eligibility.
On September 1 Phil rode the train from the Twin Cities to New York City, and then caught a taxi to Ebbets Field. The Dodgers were playing a morning-afternoon Labor Day doubleheader against the last-place Phillies.
Haugstad arrived at the park just twenty minutes before the afternoon game and fought his way through the mob outside, only to be refused entrance by the gate attendant. Two hours later, having gained admittance, he was pitching the final two innings of the first major-league ballgame he had ever seen. “He always remembered walking in there and seeing all the people and how big the park was,” his son, Hal, said. “He was just amazed.”
That day was Phil’s biggest thrill in baseball. “I was too tired to be scared,” he told a reporter. “I just threw what Bruce Edwards called for. But in between, I sorta pinched myself to make sure I was in the big time.”2
Four days later Phil worked two scoreless innings in relief against the Giants in the Polo Grounds and earned his first victory—destined to be his only victory—in the Major Leagues.
The Dodgers won the pennant, but lost the World Series to the Yankees in seven games. Haugstad was permitted only to sit and watch. His teammates did vote him a partial share of the Series money, though.
Phil started the 1948 season with the Dodgers, but on May 1, having pitched just one inning, he was optioned back to St. Paul. He brought with him his fiancée, Esther Laffe from Humbird, Wisconsin. On Tuesday, May 11, Phil and Esther were married in a candle-lighted ceremony in Bethlehem Lutheran Church in St. Paul. Five hours later Phil pitched a four-hitter to beat the Kansas City Blues, 5–1. Phil and Esther would have three children: Judy, the eldest, and Hal, the youngest, were born in Black River Falls; Nancy, the middle child, was born in Brooklyn.
After the season Phil and his bride traveled to Havana, Cuba, for a belated four-month honeymoon, albeit a working honeymoon. Phil pitched in the Cuban Winter League for the Marianao Tigers.
At spring training in 1949, Phil learned to change his pitching motion and said confidently, “I think I’ve got the control problem about licked.”3 He smoothed out his violent delivery and maintained better balance. Assigned again to St. Paul, he enjoyed his best season, winning twenty-two games and leading the Saints to their first regular-season title in eleven years. However, he still averaged more than five and a half walks per nine innings.
St. Paul won sixteen of its first seventeen games in 1949, and then struggled to hold on. In the final game of the regular season, in Milwaukee, the Saints faced a do-or-die situation—win and they capture the pennant, lose and they finish second. The Saints won, as Haugstad allowed just one run before tiring and needing relief in the final inning. His tiring was hardly surprising. He had pitched seven tough innings the night before in a tense one-run Saints victory.
The American Association playoffs were not a success for the Saints. Despite leading three games to one, they lost the series to the Milwaukee Brewers. For this Phil received nine days’ additional pay, at $29.94 per diem, a total of $269.46.
Immediately after the final game, Phil traveled to St. Louis to join the Dodgers, who were fighting the Cardinals for the National League flag. Phil watched the last nine games of the season in a Dodgers uniform but never got into a game. The Dodgers overtook the Cards and won the pennant, but as in 1947, Phil was not eligible for the World Series roster.
In 1950 Phil was again pitching in St. Paul, not Brooklyn, who still considered him too wild for the big leagues. He won sixteen games and lost eleven, with a 3.89 ERA, but walked 125 batters in 229 innings.
Haugstad was back with the Dodgers in 1951 for his only full season in the majors. That season ended when Thomson homered off Ralph Branca to win the pennant for the Giants. The Dodgers had several other pitchers whom manager Charlie Dressen could have called upon, all better rested than Branca. One of them was Phil Haugstad, whom they had used in short relief all year.
According to Phil’s daughter Judy, whenever that game was discussed in her father’s presence, “Dad said with a smile, ‘I’m glad I was not the pitcher of that home-run ball.’”
At the start of September of 1951, the Dodgers visited the Polo Grounds sporting a comfortable seven-game lead over the Giants. They left two days later having been crushed twice, 8–1 and 11–2. Slap-hitter Don Mueller blasted a record-tying five home runs in the two games, one off Haugstad in each game.
The following February the New York Times reported Haugstad had told Dressen, “I can win here. I’ve been seeing other pitchers come up that I used to beat in the minors.” Roy Campanella agreed with him, saying, “I can’t understand why Haugstad isn’t a winning pitcher because there’s hardly anybody in the league with a more wicked fastball.”4
Phil could no longer be optioned to the minors. The Dodgers had to keep him on their roster, trade him, or put him on waivers. They chose the latter course, and on May 25, 1952, without having appeared in a game for the Dodgers, Phil was claimed on waivers by the Cincinnati Reds. He appeared in nine games with Cincinnati, the final one on July 1. In that contest he was touched for a three-run homer by Enos Slaughter. The next day Haugstad was placed on waivers, claimed by the St. Louis Browns, and assigned to the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Browns’ International League farm club.
The final four seasons of Phil’s sojourn in Organized Baseball were characterized by arm troubles and address changes—Toronto, San Antonio, and Charleston, West Virginia.
At Charleston, Phil suffered with arm trouble and was twice removed from the roster. In June of 1955 the team released him for good. He was thirty-one years old. Despite an ailing right arm, he was not ready to accept his severance from baseball. He signed with the Huron Elks of the Basin League, a South Dakota semipro circuit. He won his first start but was cut loose after two weeks.
The final stop was the Williston Oilers in the ManDak (Manitoba-Dakota) League. It was an independent league in North Dakota and Canada, with a reputation as a last refuge for former Negro Leaguers and ex-big-league and minor-league ballplayers. But Haugstad’s arm was dead, and Williston released him ending his baseball career.
“He was offered a job with the Brooklyn Dodgers after he quit,” Phil’s daughter Judy related, “but he wanted to do his own thing.” He started a logging business. At first he employed two or three other men. Later the number rose to ten or twelve. Along the way Phil built his own tree harvester. Brother Bob said, “He was very talented in so many things. Welding and everything else. He could have made lots of money, but he was too busy inventing stuff.”
Phil’s family said they believe that fixing and inventing cost him his health. “Dad didn’t smoke,” Judy explained, “but he was always out there in the garage without any ventilation when he was welding on his trucks and trailers. He ended up with emphysema and bad lungs. He was on oxygen his last few years of life. That welding did him in.”
Before losing his health, Phil liked hunting and fishing and camping with his family. He also liked bowling and golfing with friends. What Phil especially enjoyed, though, was water-skiing, which he continued to do well into his fifties.
Haugstad had always been a quiet person, but as his health deteriorated, he became increasingly so. He spent more time in bed as his legs began to retain fluid. In 1994 Phil received an invitation to attend a Brooklyn Dodgers reunion in New York City. He had not seen most of his old teammates for four decades or more. His health made the journey problematic, but in the end his family decided he should go.
When he returned home, Phil said with eloquent simplicity, “Just seeing them again made it all worthwhile for me.” On October 21, 1998, Phil Haugstad died in Black River Memorial Hospital. He is buried in Riverside Cemetery in Black River Falls.
Figueredo, Jorge S. Cuban Baseball: A Statistical History, 1878-1961. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2003.
Johnson, Rody L. Rise and Fall of Dodgertown. Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida, 2008.
Black River Falls (Wisconsin) Banner-Journal
St. Paul Pioneer Press
Personal telephone interviews with: Harold Haugstad, Judy Haugstad Tulgren, Robert Haugstad, Arthur Haugstad.
1. Robert Haugstad, telephone interview, April 22, 2009.
2. Robert Fleming, “How It Feels When a Dream Comes True,” Milwaukee Journal, September 7, 1947.
3. “Northern League Players Who Made the Majors,” p. 38. http://usfamily.net/web/trombleyd/Northern%20PlayersGL.htm.
4. Roscoe McGowen, “Dressen to Use 5 or 6 Starters on Mound for Dodgers This Year,” New York Times, February 21, 1952.